Percentage of High School Graduates That Go to College in the U.S. by State & Demographics

Percentage of High School Graduates That Go to College in the U.S. by State & Demographics
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

The high school graduation rate is an indicator of college enrollment, which is likely to be lower if the former is low. However, the percentage of high school graduates that go to college would vary year on year for various reasons.

The United States average adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR) for public high schools was 86% in 2018–19. (NCES, 2021c) Meanwhile, in 2019, 66% (2.1 million) of high school completers enrolled immediately in college. (NCES, 2021b) As of October 2020, only 62.7% of high school graduates aged 16 to 24 were enrolled in college or university. (BLS, 2021b) The pandemic has been blamed for the drop in college enrollment, as income, poverty, and minority disparities widened. (NSC, 2021)

Here are more facts about high school completers who go to college, their readiness, and some barriers that they face.

High School Graduates That Go to College Table of Contents

  1. Overview of College Enrollment Among High School Graduates
  2. Data on High School Graduation Rates
  3. Demographics of High School Graduates That Go to College
  4. College Readiness of High School Students
  5. Barriers to College Attendance

Overview of College Enrollment Among High School Graduates

Not all high school graduates go to college, at least immediately. The percentage of high school graduates that go to college by year-on-year estimate was increasing for four-year institutions between 2010 to 2019. In 2019, 66% (2.1 million) of high school completers enrolled immediately in college; roughly 44% enrolled in four-year colleges, while only 22% went to two-year colleges, a decrease from 2010 (27%). (NCES, 2021b)

Deviating from the previous gradually rising enrollment were October 2020 reports indicating 62.7% of 2020 high school graduates aged 16 to 24 are enrolled in college or university, down from 66.2 % last year. The drop in college enrollment rate is attributed to the pandemic (BLS, 2021b; NSC, 2021) as income, poverty, and minority disparities grew wider within groups compared to 2019. (NSC, 2021)

In 2019, 41% of 18-24-year-olds were enrolled in college. (NCES, 2021a) Specifically, 2.3 million students aged 18-24 and 200,800 students aged 24+ attended their first post-secondary institution. Approximately 18.2 million students are enrolled in college during this period. (Admissionsly, 2021)

Meanwhile, this year, 14.67 million students will attend public universities, while 5.24 million will attend private colleges. On the same note, Enrollment growth is expected to rise by 3% over the next decade. The predicted growth is substantial, but it is far from the numbers seen between 2000 and 2010. (Admissionsly, 2021)

Share of high school graduates that go to college immediately

Out of School Youth Data

Around 16.5 million (43.9%) people aged 16 to 24 were out of school. (BLS, 2021b) This could be attributed to the 2020 high school graduates who took a year off before college. Among those who did not proceed to college in fall 2020, only 2% did so in fall 2021. (NSC, 2021)

The out-of-school youth comprise not only those who initially took a gap year and eventually never did enroll in college but also the high school drop-out rate.

It cannot be denied that some high schoolers dropped out and became successful in finding employment. Recent high school dropouts aged 16 to 24 had a lower labor force participation rate (47.5%) than recent high school graduates aged 18 to 24. (BLS, 2021b)

Data on High School Graduation Rates

The US ACGR for public high school students increased from 79% in 2010–11 to 86% in 2018–19 when the ACGR ranged from 69% in the District of Columbia to 92% in Iowa and Alabama. Forty states reported ACGRs from 80% to less than 90%. (NCES, 2021c)

Meanwhile, in 2018, 89.8% of adults aged 25 and older and 93% of adults aged 18 to 24 had earned a GED, diploma, or equivalency to high school learning. Currently, 84% of adults aged 18-24 have completed high school. (Think Impact, 2021) Over 60% of students taking the GED exam showed that they intended to enroll in college. (Admissionsly, 2021)

In a more recent record from the NCES, the 2019-2020 high school graduating class should have averaged 3.7 million students; that is the exact number of high school students in 2019. Private high schools would have had 0.3 million students, while public high schools had 3.3 million. Similarly, the Harvard Institute predicted a 4 million increase in high school student enrollment in 2020. Exact related data have yet to be released.

Despite the big numbers recorded on high school enrollments, unfortunately, not all high school students graduate. This depends on many things, like deaths, exam failures, and school dropouts.

The states with the highest graduation rates are Montana (94.00%), Alaska (93.00%), Maine (93.00%), Minnesota (93.00%), and New Hampshire (93.00%). (World Population Review, 2021)

Meanwhile, according to World Population Review (2021), only 15 states and one federal district have 100% graduation rates.

  • Alaska (5 schools)
  • Arizona (26 schools)
  • Arkansas (13 schools)
  • California (55 schools)
  • Colorado (14 schools)
  • Connecticut (5 schools)
  • Florida (40 schools)
  • Georgia (11 schools)
  • Idaho (12 schools)
  • Illinois (20 schools)
  • Indiana (14 schools)
  • Iowa (42 schools)
  • Kansas (3 schools)
  • Kentucky (10 schools)
  • Louisiana (13 schools)
  • Maine (1 school)

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Demographics of High School Graduates That Go to College

As previously mentioned, not all high school completers attend college immediately. Some, instead, choose to take a gap year or not to enroll at all and find employment instead. Despite finance being among the common factors that influence students’ college enrollment decisions, the profiles of those who do proceed to college vary.

Here are more facts about the demographics of high school graduates who decide to attend college.

Enrollment by Gender

Immediate college enrollment rates differ by sex. Yearly, since 2010, the college enrollment rate for 18- to 24-year-olds overall was higher for females than for males. (NCES, 2021a) Here are some gender-related facts to high school completers’ college enrollment according to NCES,, BLS, and Admissionsly.

  • In 2017, women dominated immediate college enrollment. Also, males attend two-year universities more than females: 61% of male students went to college after graduation, 24% to two-year colleges, 37% to four-year colleges, and 72% of female students went to college after graduation.
  • In 2018, college enrollment rates for those who recently graduated from high school, aged 16 to 24 were 66.9% for men and 71.3% (11.2 million) for women.
  • In 2019, male students who immediately enrolled in college were 62%, while females were 70%. These were significantly different from the 2010 rates.
  • Among recent 16 to 24-year-old high school graduates, college enrollment rates for men were 59.3% and 66.2% for women.
  • In 2019, both 18-year-old to 24-year-old males had college enrollment rates of 37%, while females had 44%. These were not significantly different from those in 2010.
  • In 2019, male students (39%) enrolled in four-year institutions were fewer than females’ (49%).
  • The percentage of male (23%) and female (21%) students who immediately enrolled in two-year institutions was not significantly different.

students that go to college immediately by gender

Enrollment by Socioeconomic Status

Generally, the lowest quintile students prefer an associate’s degree to a bachelor’s degree. Students from the highest socioeconomic quintile are 50% more likely to enroll in college, while only 28% from the lowest quintile are likely to do the same. Indeed, in 2019, more high-income students went to college than low-income students. (Admissionsly, 2021)

Here are some socio-economic status-related facts on high school completers’ college enrollment according to NCES,, BLS, and Admissionsly.

  • 42% of students from the lowest quintile pursued an associate degree; only 32% enrolled in a bachelor’s degree.
  • 78% of students from the wealthiest quintile enrolled in a four-year degree and 13% pursued a two-year degree.
  • 37% of higher-income students enrolled first at a highly selective college while only 7% of the lower-income students did the same.
  • In 2019, 69% of students who are from higher-income high schools were 25% more likely to enroll in college, compared to 55% of students in lower-income high schools.

Enrollment By Race

In 2018, 19.6 million students enrolled in college (Admissionsly, 2021), and in every year from 2010 to 2019, college enrollment for Asians was higher than for White, Black, and Hispanic. (NCES, 2021a)

In 2019, Asian students (82%) had higher immediate college enrollment rates than White (69%), Hispanic (64%), and Black (57%) students. The immediate college enrollment rates for White, Asian, and Hispanic students did not change between 2010 and 2019. However, for Black students, the 2019 rate (57%) was lower than in 2010 (66%). (NCES, 2021b)

Here are some race-related facts on high school completers’ college enrollment according to NCES,, BLS, and Admissionsly.

  • In 2018, 7.5 million white students enrolled in public institutions versus 2.3 million in private nonprofit institutions.
    • 3.1 million Hispanic students enrolled in public institutions versus 460,431 in private nonprofit institutions.
    • 1.7 million Black students attended public institutions whereas 494,901 chose to enroll in private nonprofit institutions.
    • 994,527 Asian students went to public institutions for a college education, while 266,389 went to private nonprofit institutions.
    • 611,129 non-resident aliens are attending public institutions while 356,841 are enrolled in private nonprofit institutions.
    • 55,241 students who belong to one or more races attended public institutions, while 141,180 went to private nonprofit institutions.
    • 105,105 Alaskan Native or Native American students chose public institutions while 19,390 attended private nonprofit institutions.
    • 33,274 Pacific Islanders attended public institutions while 10,602 enrolled in private nonprofit institutions.
  • In 2019, college enrollment of Asians (47%) is followed by two or more races (47%, White (41%), Black (27%), Hispanic (36%), Native Americans/Alaska Native (24%). (NCES, 2021a)

Source: (Note: Data unavailable for Asians from 1980 to 2000)

College Readiness of High School Students

There seems to be a gap between students’ aim to attend college and their preparedness for college-level work. As such, many students enrolled in college do not graduate with a degree.

Meanwhile, Conley, as cited by Amelga (2012) notes that 93% of middle school students aim to attend college, but only 44% enroll eventually, and only 26% graduate. Meanwhile, of the high school seniors who target earning a four-year degree, 28% are more likely to apply to college than those with no plans. Meanwhile, those aspiring to complete an advanced degree are 34% more likely to apply than those with no such plans. (Gilkey et al., 2012)

Nevertheless, high schools appear to be doing a decent job of preparing students for success in college as about four out of every five respondents feel their high schools properly prepared them. Grand Canyon University’s (GCU) survey shows average preparedness level on a 0-10 scale is 7.1. (GCU, 2021)

More specifically, GCU (2021) reports that students who attended private high schools feel they are more prepared for college. They answered affirmatively at a rate of 85.5% while the rate for public school students was 76.7%.

Indiana, Georgia, and Connecticut had the highest percentage of GCU respondents who said they felt prepared for college. In contrast, less than 75% of Virginia, New Jersey, and New York students feel prepared for college, with Virginia at just under 70%. (GCU, 2021)

Quite contrary to Amelga’s (2012) findings in 2012 that students with career plans are more likely to enroll in college, CGU (2021) reports that students who developed an education plan when they first enter high school in grade nine were not significantly more likely nor less likely to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, complete any college preparatory curriculum, apply to any college, or enroll in any college than students who did not develop a plan.

However, developing a plan is more influential on college-going behaviors for students who received support from a teacher or parent in developing their plan and who met with an adult in school at least once a year to review it. (Gibney & Rauner, 2021)

Finally, Shannon et al. (2021) assessed students’ college readiness and early college success using three indicators: earning all credits enrolled during the first semester of college, enrolling in only credit-bearing math and English courses in the first year of college, and continuing to the second year of college. They found that nearly a quarter of students who met all three indicators demonstrate college readiness and early college success.

Barriers to College Attendance

For many students, graduating from high school, more so, attending college could be challenging. Some graduates enroll twice in different courses. However, others enroll years later for various reasons, such as financial. (BLS, 2021) Many factors hinder students’ decision to enroll in college, but the majority would attribute this to inadequate funding. As such, some who enroll would not only consider working part-time but even working full-time while in college.

Knight and Dunecheon (2020), in their study, “Broadening conceptions of a ‘college-going culture:’ The role of high school climate factors in college enrollment and persistence,” notes that “School climate features, including school safety and extracurricular programming, may influence students’ likelihood of both enrolling and persisting in higher education, as well as the effectiveness of college-going culture interventions.”

In the same study published in Policy Futures in Education, Knight and Duncheon (2020) note “the possibility for school climate factors to influence the effectiveness of college-going interventions,” and found that “Offering a new AP course, opening a college counseling office, or offering college knowledge programs may be less effective when students do not feel safe at school, or when they do not have opportunities to become positively engaged through extracurricular programming.”

The findings of Knight and Dunecheon (2020) “point to the potential challenges of trying to implement specific college-going reforms without regard to the broader school climate. College-going reforms may be more effective when accompanied by efforts to enhance school community and safety.”

Meanwhile, the vicinity of colleges and universities could be a barrier in certain cases. Students in rural areas are more likely to face socioeconomic factors than those in urban areas, and data show a smaller rate of graduation in rural areas than in urban areas: 20% of residents in rural areas had achieved a bachelor’s degree compared to 34% in urban areas. (Admissionsly, 2021)

study of 140 colleges and universities found that such institutions prefer to recruit at high schools where the average family income is over $100,000 while avoiding those where it is under $70,000. The targeting of private schools is also apparently disproportionate. Rural residents, however, are rarely from wealthy families or educated in private schools.

A strong economy is a major factor in reducing graduation years. The last time post-recession college enrollment increased in the US was in 2011. Unemployment falls as the economy improves. Currently, it is at 3.5%, as more people leave or postpone college to work. (Admissionsly, 2021)

Why You Should Attend College

College attendance, be it in private or public universities, can be a challenge to students for many reasons, including financial and health. While the percentage of high school graduates that go to college by state is quite high, the college graduation of those who do enroll is still not 100%.

Nevertheless, it is worth noting that people with a bachelor’s degree earned 67% more per week in 2020 than those with only a high school diploma. (BLS, 2021a) Also, the 2020 employment rates (86%) were higher than in 2010 (84%) for holders of a bachelor’s or higher degree. (NCES, 2020) As such, getting a bachelor’s degree could help students move ahead in life.

While students are encouraged to attend college if they are looking to move farther in their careers, academic institutions must also address the college readiness gap that high school graduates may experience. More so, colleges and universities ought to prepare to meet the workplace gap that the ever-changing world brings.



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